The Watcher itself.
Perhaps more legendary than the vast number of kids who had nightmares as a result of this film is the infamous lost ending. The film was screened for one week in April of 1980, then pulled from circulation, and released again (with a totally different beginning and ending) a year later. Two alternate versions of the ending have been on DVD since 2002 (neither of these are quite what was screened in 1980), though the initial opening credits prologue hasn't been seen since the film's original theatrical release...
The little-known original opening featured a girl in the woods playing with a doll. The Watcher sneaks up behind and scares the girl, she drops the doll and runs away. The doll flies into the air, is struck by a blue streak of light and bursts into flames. The main titles play out over the melting doll's face. After the film's initial screenings, this sequence was scrapped and new footage was filmed -- as it appears today -- of the roving camera through the woods. The original footage still exists, though an overzealous Disney worker wouldn't let it appear on the DVD because it seemed very un-Disney-like. Additionally, there was a few minutes of extra footage that hasn't resurfaced (including one scene where Carol Baker Hall hauls off and slaps Lynn Holly Johnson -- which was more powerful than the scene as it exists now, where Hall just shakes her).
The problems with the original ending were that it wasn't quite clear what had happened to Karen. "The Watcher" itself was a giant alien puppet, which swept Jan away to its world, where she released Karen from suspended animation in a triangular prism (which directly corresponds with the breaking mirrors). Unfortunately, "the other world sequence" was omitted from the release which was rushed to coincide with Bette Davis's 50th anniversary on film. Because this sequence was omitted, the critics, who were into the film up until this point, were confused about exactly what had happened. As it played out, Jan merely vanished and reappeared a few moments later with Karen at her side.
Despite rumours that the puppet Watcher was "laughed off of the screen" (an off-the-cuff comment made by the director which was taken too literally), the problems with the end had less to do with the Watcher itself, and more to do with the omission of the Other World Sequence. Although the Watcher has a little too much screen time in the DVD prints, it's still quite menacing -- and it originally emitted a nasty growl that's missing from the DVD versions. Director Hough had moved on to another project and left the film's special effects in the care of Disney -- which he later admitted was a mistake. Against better judgement, the film was rushed into theatres two weeks earlier than intended, meaning that they had to drop the Other World Sequence since the special effects were not yet completed. Blame was placed upon the wrong people, and the film was pulled from circulation for a complete year.
Instead of finishing the incomplete effects, they opted to shoot an entirely new ending. In this new ending, Ellie becomes possessed by the Watcher to convey the plot points which were lost with the omission of the Other World sequence. Although they did a good job matching the style, John Hough did not direct this sequence, nor did he direct the new opening footage that replaced the burning doll. More footage was trimmed that built character and story (some of which appears in the deleted scenes on the DVD) and the once-108 minute film was released in to theatres in an 83 minute version. Although the "pillar of light" ending, as it's come to be known, more clearly defines the plot, it doesn't give much closure to the story, and the loss of several of the original scenes is tragic. Critics were generally kinder to this cut, but it failed to find an audience and this version quickly wound up on video -- where many children first began to discover it. Oddly, a scene from the original ending wound up in the infamous "Walt Disney and You" promo that was on all of Disney's early video releases, though the scene (of the mother pleading, "What did you see?") has never been released on videotape in its entirety.
But that's still not the end of this epic story...
In the '90s, Anchor Bay Entertainment licenced the rights to release several of the aforementioned films on VHS/DVD. Among their acquisitions was WATCHER, which they'd planned to release in a 2-disc set containing a tweaked director's cut of the version that was screened in 1980. For laughable reasons that I won't go into here (check out Scott Michael Bosco's "The Mystery of the Mystery" article at www.thedigitalcinema.net for more), Disney wouldn't allow Anchor Bay access to the original cut -- which still exists. When Anchor Bay's license on the film ran out and the rights reverted back to Disney, director Hough made a second offer to fly to the states on his own dime to assemble a director's cut free of charge, but the house of mouse declined his offer, repackaged the film and it's extras (sans some of the features on the Anchor Bay release) and marketed an inferior DVD release of WATCHER.
There are many stories concerning on-set tension and several people who've attempted to sanitize the film, merely because it bears the Disney name. From all accounts, these are true. But as a result of a unique script, a stellar team both on-camera and off, a gorgeous production design and Hough's expert direction, the film's managed to rise above the many
obstacles thrown in its path to find an audience who appreciate it.
The alternate version lies in wait for the time that either the people at Disney wisen up (ha, ha!) or enough fans bug them to see this lost print that they're finally forced to release it (The Walt Disney Company 500 S. Buena Vista Street Burbank, CA 91521 or www.disneydvd.com). Here's hoping that the original version finds it's way to DVD by the 30th anniversary...
Special thanks to Scott Michael Bosco and his website, The Digital Cinema (www.thedigitalcinema.net), without which, much of this information would not be available.